Soil and Water Sciences Alumna’s Service is Rooted in Alaska

The straight-line distance between Gainesville and Anchorage, Alaska, is a little more than 3,700 miles. Still, that cross-country divide did not deter one Soil and Water Sciences graduate from making the move. Dr. Liz Hodges Snyder is almost ten years removed from the PhD program, but the lessons learned at UF continue to guide her as an associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA).

“I applied for a job with the Master of Public Health Program and I did not think I was going to get it,” Snyder recalls. “I hadn’t even defended my dissertation yet. I just figured it was a good trip to Alaska and great practice.”

She was already married. Her husband, Sam, was also finishing up his PhD in the Religion and Nature program. Both had been to Alaska and were interested in possibly living there.

“Then it turns out I got the job,” she says. “We love it here.”

Research and Service
Liz Hodges Snyder portrait

Dr. Liz Hodges Snyder (PhD ’09)
Photo from Liz Snyder

Snyder now serves as an associate professor of public health at UAA. Her education in the Soil and Water Sciences Department served her well because Snyder points out there are many water and sanitation needs in Alaska.

“We still have communities in rural Alaska that don’t have piped water in the home,” she says. “There may be centralized Water and Sewer or there may not be. There’s a lot of hauling of water and wastewater and then all of the environmental and human health implications associated with that.”

Snyder’s research and service work brings her to communities throughout the state. She says this allows her to learn from a wide range of people to meet a community’s identified needs. One of those areas is sanitation. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has funded a team project called Reuse Water AK, which includes Snyder.

“The project focused on developing household-level water and sewer treatment, so moving away from the very expensive, centralized treatment plants,” she explains. “We have incorporated design thinking into this project, so it is very community engaged in terms of what the challenges are, what the solutions should be, what rural residents would like out of the project.”

The state just approved the team for another phase of this project. It will begin testing the in-home treatment system in a truly residential setting where team members will have nearly constant access.  They will collect quantitative water quality and system function data, as well as qualitative user response data.

Snyder says a new passion grew from a different proposal that did not receive funding – food security. Personally, she and her husband have gardened for years and even raised chickens. They started the first local slow foods convivium. The more she got involved, the more she learned about it.

“There’s such a great need up here around food system development and food security and access, and the interest was there,” Snyder says. “That led me to the Alaska Food Policy Council. I ended up on the board and served as co-chair for several years.”

She and another board member, Rachael Miller, assistant professor of business at Alaska Pacific University, have partnered on a new initiative – the Food Research, Enterprise, and Sustainability Hub (FRESH). It is designed as a place to turn to for information, connections, and expertise on circumpolar food systems.

“We’ve intentionally done our very best to do the research and groundwork needed to inform the development of such a resource, making sure that it’s responsive to actual needs and anticipated needs,” Snyder says. “I’m very proud to say that three years in, we have it, it exists, and people know it now.”

“I was essentially a lab rat for five years (as a doctoral student). Now it has been much more qualitative and social science, which I really enjoy. It allows me to really live in the applied world, which even in grad school, I knew was the general direction I wanted to go.”

Campaigning for Change

Snyder calls her evolution away from her original training “exciting, even a little anxiety-inducing.” Working in the social science realm allows her to apply what she has learned in the communities she serves. Boots on the ground is how she describes it.

“That’s what I find myself doing now more than ever,” she says, “but still having my finger in the pie of a few projects that are more related to my original training.”

Liz Snyder campaigning with supporters

Snyder (front, left) waving campaign signs with supporters during her 2018 campaign for Alaska state representative. Photo from Liz Snyder

Snyder decided to go in a different direction in 2018. She filed to run for a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives. She ran on a platform of sustainable economic growth, public safety, and education.

“I had been thinking about policy for a few years at that point, and had gotten to know some of our legislators who have an interest in food systems development and was able to reach out to them and get some mentorship from them and actually make this all feel possible,” she recalls.

With the encouragement of her family, Snyder jumped into the race. She campaigned across her east Anchorage district and “left it all on the field” with no regrets. The incumbent representative won with less than three percent – 181 votes.

“We ran a campaign you can feel really good about without making any compromises. I went from zero name recognition to almost beating an eight-year incumbent,” Snyder says. “The general plan, at this point, is to do it again (in 2020).”

Remembering UF

While Snyder is happy with her job and feels she is making a real impact in Alaska, she says she still misses UF after being away for ten years.

“My experience in the Soil and Water Sciences Department was so amazing,” she says. “My office mates and lab mates were incredible. I had an advisor who really set me up and prepared me for a successful career as did all the instructors.”

Dr. George O’Connor was Snyder’s PhD advisor after she switched her focus in the first year. He remembers how hard she worked as a student who came to SWSD with a public health background.

“Liz never objected to back-filling her credentials with several difficult courses in the basic sciences and worked very hard,” he says. “All of this effort with a positive attitude paid off in an excellent dissertation and a confident professional.”

Snyder’s work won the SWSD’s Outstanding Dissertation Award in 2009.

O’Connor notes that even as a doctoral student, Snyder was a great teacher and gives her most of the credit for creating a new course.

“She is largely responsible for designing, assisting, and “mothering” our Soils, Water, and Public Health course from the first day,” he recalls. “The course combined her previous expertise on Public Health and the detailed soil and water and risk assessment training she received here.”

“He was one of the most challenging advisors I’ve ever had, and it was always to my benefit. I owe a lot to him,” Snyder says. “It was a wonderful experience and I will forever be grateful for that.”